Tag Archives: Red on Red

Fourth Edgar nominee: Purgatory Chasm by Steve Ulfelder

April 26 is approaching quickly, so these reviews are coming fast and furious.  The Mystery Writers of America Edgar awards ceremony is Thursday!

Purgatory Chasm – sure to be a series – features auto mechanic and former race car driver Conway Sax.  Conway is also a recovering alcoholic and a member of a quirky AA group called the Barnburners.  In the AA tradition, Conway is obligated to help his fellow Barnburner Tander Phigg, who wants help freeing his vintage Mercedes from a crooked auto shop.

Of course, things go wrong, Tander’s murdered, and Sax is the primary suspect.  It’s a straight-forward story, a classic structure, and well-plotted and well-told by Ulfelder.

Most enjoyable is Ulfelder’s tone – the book has a clean, sharp voice, told in first person.  Here’s a sample (the first few paragraphs of the book):

There are drunken assholes, and there are assholes who are drunks.  Take a drunken asshole and stick him in AA five or ten years, maybe you come out with a decent guy.

Now take an asshole who’s a drunk.  Put him in AA as long as you like.  Send him to a thousand meetings a year, have him join the Peace Corps for good measure.  What you come out with is a sober asshole.

Tander Phigg was a sober asshole.

Getting to the bottom of Tander’s murder leads Sax on a wild ride (literally).  Purgatory Chasm is a fun, fast read.  And frankly, compared to the other three I’ve read, reviewed and rated so far, it was a relief.  While each of those books had much to recommend them (they are Edgar nominees, after all), Ulfelder’s debut was the only “classic” murder mystery in the running so far.

But is that enough to put it in the #1 spot?  I’ll tell you, it’s a tough one.  Ultimately, as much as I loved Purgatory Chasm, I have to give Bent Road the edge.  It’s just a more complex, deeper, more compelling story, with a strong sense of place and complex, interesting characters.  No one would say it was fun – but fun isn’t necessarily the most important criteria.

Rankings as we come down to the wire:

  1. Bent Road by Lori Roy
  2. Purgatory Chasm by Steve Ulfelder
  3. Last to Fold by David Duffy
  4. Red on Red by Edward Condon

Last to Fold third Edgar nominee

Turbo Vlast is an interesting man.  Once a zek, always a zek – Russian slang for a prisoner in a forced labor camp – even though he spent 20 years in the KGB after being plucked from the Gulag for his facility in language.  Turbo now runs a one-man (with some help from his friends and a chatty parrot) detective agency.

Last to Fold offers a twisty story wherein Turbo is retained to get to the bottom of a kidnapping – only to find out that the girl in question is the daughter of his own ex-wife.  He hasn’t seen Polina in 20 years, and she’s been living a tumultuous life since then, filled with crimes like embezzlement, identity theft and even murder.  Their personal relationship was also tumultuous, and the manipulative Polya was successful in separating Turbo from their son together, Aleksei.  The present-day mystery is rooted in a long-ago crime.  And let’s just say that Polya is not the only multi-faceted character with a strong unpleasant streak.  To get to the bottom of the many layers of intrigue, Turbo has to uncover answers to questions the Russian mob does not want asked.  He does so, but not without fallout.

What’s challenging about Last to Fold:  As many Russian names as Anna Karenina.  (Wait – Iakov!  Was he the good guy?  Or was that Ivanov?)  Many of the main characters hate each other, slept with each other, were married to each other, stole from each other, and betrayed each other.  All set against a backdrop of history that I’m not good with.

What’s good about Last to Fold:   Pretty tight timeline, funny parrot (Pig Pen), believable computer spyware, compelling character in Eva Mulholland (the “kidnapped” girl), and a killer twist at the end that I did not anticipate.  Well done, David Duffy!

How does it stack up against Bent Road and Red on Red, the two previously reviewed nominees for the MWA Edgar for Best First Novel by an American author?   For plot and characterization – better than Red on Red, not as good as Bent Road.  For voice – tie with Bent Road.  That gives Duffy’s nominee a spot smack dab in the middle:

Rankings so far:

  1. Bent Road by Lori Roy
  2. Last to Fold by David Duffy
  3. Red on Red by Edward Condon

Bent Road takes on Red on Red

I read Lori Roy’s Bent Road in one sitting, starting it when I couldn’t get to sleep one night and staying up, eyes heavy, drinking fully caffeinated tea so I could finish it.  The second entry in the race to the MWA Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author, Bent Road is the story of one family, one rural community, and the secrets of the human heart that bind them together while tearing them apart.

The family in question is the Scotts.  Father Arthur left his small Kansas town twenty years previously, but he’s on his way back with wife Celia, son Daniel, and daughters Elaine and Evie, having decided that Detroit is no place to raise a family.   Roy establishes a sense of foreboding in the first few pages, as Celia, Daniel and Evie drive through the darkness toward their new life, straining to see down the road while the shadows dart.

That foreboding is amplified as more characters are introduced, and the reader soon realizes that still waters run deep, indeed.  Arthur’s sister Eve died as a teenager, in a way that was apparently shocking but is not fully understood.  Eve’s boyfriend Ray – so loving and happy at the time – subsequently married their sister Ruth.   The marriage is unhappy, tragically so.  Daniel yearns for his father’s approval.  And little Evie has a strong physical resemblance to her aunt Eve, as well as to little Julianne Robinson.   Then Julianne disappears.

This debut novel is well-plotted, the characters are singular and yet familiar, the relationships complex, and Roy does an amazing job at building tension and revealing information in a way that is appropriate within the plot.  There is no cheating.  The resolution to the Julianne’s disappearance is satisfying and sad, and the resolution to the family drama is much the same.

Comparison to Red on Red:  Both focus on the humanity of the characters.  Both reveal the underlying inter-relations of the plot threads slowly, throughout the book.  But Bent Road is a page-turner (I literally refused to put it down), while Red on Red requires a persistent spirit to keep reading to the end.

No surprise, here’s the ranking:

  1. Bent Road by Lori Roy
  2. Red on Red by Edward Conlon

Newbies vie in Edgar race

Oh, golly.  The Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards ceremony is coming up on April 26 and I have not blogged about my picks for the Best First Novel by an American Author.  Better get cracking.

Here they are- I’m going to start with Red on Red.  Author Edward Conlon is a detective with the New York City Police Department and a Harvard grad.  Previously published in The New Yorker and elsewhere, he is also the author of a memoir (Blue Blood).

The crime novel features Meehan and Esposito, partners and NYPD detectives.  Newly paired, the partners navigate their professional and private lives and the reader sees their relationship deepen as they share experiences.  But underneath, there’s a secret:  Meehan’s a plant.  Internal Affairs is convinced that Esposito is crooked, and it’s Meehan’s job to turn up the evidence.

The story is both sprawling – many characters, lots of scenes, lots of stuff happening – and tight, as the plot threads weave back together to reveal how multiple crimes and multiple relationships are inter-related.  It’s heavy with complexity and complex characters.  It also has a tone that reminds me of Joseph Waumbaugh’s books – sad and cynical and hopeful all at the same time.

So – did I love it?  Sorry, no.   It’s complex, but also convoluted, and as a result,  I had a hard time maintaining engagement for the full length of the book – almost 450 pages.  It was worth reading and I expect more good stuff from Edward Conlon in the future, but I’m doubting it will be my top pick for the Edgar.

Want to read another perspective?  My friend and writing buddy Addy is also blogging about the Edgars.   Read her review of Red on Red here.